Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

George Russell

6.23.23 – 7.27.09

George Russell

I met George Russell in my first semester as a junior-year student at New England Conservatory in 1975. We were both from Cincinnati and I think that he liked that fact-though he had much to say about racism there and I completely agreed. Whatever the subject, George spoke his mind.

His groundbreaking theory of jazz harmony, The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, made sense to me on many levels, though I must admit that I was not an acolyte. His teaching method was, to me, rather dry and unyielding, and somewhat lacking in enthusiasm. George’s real strength was as a composer and arranger-where he was most himself. I remember getting goose bumps listening to Sheila Jordan singing “You Are My Sunshine” in his strangely beautiful arrangement.

Getting the chance to play his music was what I enjoyed the most, and got the most out of. He really believed in his music, and, to a young musician, it was inspiring to be around someone with such conviction. Though it was a challenge for a youthful player, it was worth the work: His music was intricate, eclectic, wonderfully crafted and really grooved.

We did have one memorable set-to, however. His three-part suite, “All About Rosie,” has a burning third movement featuring several choruses of a piano solo that begins unaccompanied and becomes stop-time. On the original recording, a young Bill Evans completely tore it up. One day after rehearsal, George asked me if I had listened to that recording and I said I hadn’t; I said that I didn’t want to be intimidated or unduly influenced. He looked at me with a stare that could have melted glass. Then I further (and inappropriately for a student) said that “the concept” seemed to be all about freedom to create, and that I wanted to play it my way. I guess he didn’t have much to say to that, and, to his credit, he didn’t force me to listen to it. I would like to think that he had a bit of respect for me after that, though with George one could never be sure. But after the concert he did softly say, “Nice solo.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

NEC in the mid-’70s had a world-class jazz studies faculty who were unconventional in their methods and fiercely believed in passing their knowledge on, partly by setting good examples of what it means to be a true jazz artist. There were some real heavies on the faculty, musicians who were iconoclasts and contributed significantly to the development of the music: Jaki Byard, Jimmy Giuffre, Joe Maneri, Ran Blake and George Russell-these are names for the history books. I was one lucky kid from Cincinnati to be there.

Originally Published